Margaret Atwood and the Environmental Issues Wakana asano

This is an analysis of the poem “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer” by Margaret Atwood, and aims to reveal what she tries to do with this poem, viewing from the three perspectives – the poem and the environmental issue, Atwood’s thoughts about the environment, and the current situation of the environmental issues.

As my hypothesis, it seems that Atwood tries to change people and improve the environmental issues with this poem. To prove this hypothesis, firstly let us think the first perspective – the poem and the environmental issue. The poem can be seen and the indication of “the invasion of human beings toward the nature”. When we see “he” – “a pioneer” in this poem as the representative of human beings, the poem can be re-read in this way; human beings improved their lives and became to think they are “the centre” of the world (l.1-3), nothing disturbs them and nothing is impossible for them (l.4-7), and they want to go further and expand their sphere (l.8-9). Those can be proved obviously when we look back the history of human beings; the improvement of human lives, especially after the Industrial Revolution started in 1760s in Britain, the world has been evolved into free markets, capitalism, and hard competitions which people expand their desire and invade toward the nature so that they can obtain more profit to survive. To put it in an extreme way, cars, for example, are very useful but not definitely necessary for human beings to survive.There are so many unnecessary things in the current world.

They use the nature for agriculture (l.10-14) but the nature fight against that (l.15-19). They build their houses and live “in the middle of nowhere” (l.20-25). “The idea of an animal” – the idea of human beings never come to the end (l.26-27). The nature still try to refuse human beings but it is “in vain” and “everything / is getting in” (l.26-32). Human beings fight against the nature and think “This is not order / but the absence / of order” (l.31-39), but it is the view of human beings - the truth is that “It was / an ordered absence”. The nature is just doing as itself and has not made for human beings (l.40-43).

Human beings also “fished”, or worked for a great dream in a poor place with poor equipment, and “it was like / enticing whales with a bent / pin” (l.44-51), even they expected that they failed and could not realize their dream (l.51-53).

If human beings had known “unstructured space” – the nature is “a delude” which is changing all the time, and saved “his log house- / boat” (the ecosystem) “with all the animals”, “even the wolves” which would them and their lives and finally have been extinct, they “might have floated” – in other words, human beings could survive with less concerns and dangers about their environment and the earth (l.54-59). This part is expressed with the theme of Noah’s ark from the Old testament, and it makes the part more impressive. Although the nature has been hurt and some species have already been extinct because of their acts, human beings still say that the earth, the environment, and the ecosystem are unchangeable, “solid / and stumped” so that they will be able to survive (l.60-62)

– but to be honest, they realize the fact that they are facing the crisis of their planet. They have been ignoring it (l.63-65). The things in the nature refused to be controlled by human beings – and in this poem, the control is representing as ‘naming’. Originally things in the nature do not have names because names are just symbols which are valid only in the communication among human beings – in other words, names are only for human beings. When things in the nature are named, it can be said that those are (kind of) occupied and become only for human beings. Considering that, the sentence that “Things / refused to name themselves; refused / to let him name them” (l.66-69) is an expression of nature’s refusal to become only for human beings. Seeing “his beaches, his clearings” and “the surf of under- / growth breaking” which are all the results of that human beings themselves have destroyed the nature, they “foresaw / disintegration” of the nature on the planet (l.71-75). They have destroyed the nature and ignored the fact intentionally, but at the end “the unnamed whale invaded” (l.76-83). The word “unnamed” reminds us of the claim above that names are a kind of occupation of human beings, and “whales” evokes something huge that human beings cannot control, like Moby Dick from “Moby Dick” (1851) by Herman Melville (1819-1891), a white and huge whale which has been considered as a symbol of God fighting against the human; Ahab. In this sense, the last part of this poem evokes the situation that something huge – the environmental crisis “invaded” our planet. And it was because of human beings who had been pioneering (or destroying) the nature and ignoring it.

Secondly, Atwood’s thoughts about the environment - what does she think about the environment and human beings? In “Margaret Atwood Interview” (Matthew Rothschild. Dec 2, 2010. The Progressive), she mentions the environmental crisis and today’s structure of the global society are not going to work well. She says “we’ve run out of stuff. Our big problems are going to be energy supply and food supplies”, and claims that “this is not a right-left issue. It’s a people issue, and it cuts across all our categories. The problem is huge.”

From this interview, it can be found that she concerns the environmental problem as a large problem for all human beings, and these thoughts are reflected in her works (here the interview is about “The Year of the Flood” which concerns the environment). Another interview, “Margaret Atwood interview: ‘Go three days without water and you don’t have any human rights. Why? Because you’re dead’”, shows her prediction that those concerns about the environment becomes the threat toward ourselves. In this interview, she says that “the planet will be OK in its own way. No matter what we do to it, we won’t eliminate every last life form from it”, with her experience and thoughts in the Canadian city of Sudbury in 1940s. According to her, the environmental issues will threat ourselves like acid rain in Sudbury. Relating to those, there is a dialogue movie “Margaret Atwood – On Fiction, the Future and the Environment”. In this movie, the interviewer says that she doesn’t think she (and people) can change the world, but she answers that human beings have already changed the world a lot, both better and worse than ever. Human beings got the abilities to change the world which can both be good and bad. They created new biological species such as better potatoes, but they also have destroyed more globes. She mentions the importance of protecting the air, seeing the planet and human beings comprehensively. All those interviews and a movie show Atwood’s concern over the unsustainability of human beings and the earth.

Finally, those should be considered the current situation from the environmental aspects, and what should people do. The world temperature is getting higher and higher (global warming). The glaciers are melting because of the higher temperature than ever and causing the rise of sea level which means some lands (small islands, coasts) are sinking in the sea and creatures living there lose their habitats. Some areas on the earth are suffered from the acid rain which damages creatures, plants, buildings, and others. The air and water are polluted by the chemicals and industries of human beings, tons of woods have been cut so human beings can get resources and develop new lands. Not only woods, also other limited resources such as oil, coals, natural gas, have already been consumed for industries and modern livings.

And all above have been caused by us, human beings. The word “sustainability” has been said for a long time - we must consider that our behavior will hurt future generations. What this “unsustainability” means is, using the words in the poem, “the unnamed / whale invaded”: the ruin of ourselves and our planet. Although most of us know that, we too do not think about the environmental issue seriously. Even they understand know what they can do and should do; we must change our behavior. Not only politicians, large-scale companies, environmental researchers, every one of us can make small changes. Taking public transportations or using bicycle instead of private cars, turning off the lights when it is not necessary, reducing the amount of waste water (not to use dish washing liquid too much, for example), and so on. Doing what we can do right now will change the unsustainable future expected.

From those three perspectives, those can be said; 1) this poem is about the indication of the environmental issues having been caused by human beings, 2) Atwood claims that human beings damage the earth, 3) the current environmental issues are urgent and must be solved or improved as soon as possible, as Atwood indicates in many of her works. As a conclusion, through the poem and her works, Atwood is trying to make people evoke the attentions to the environment, change people’s behavior, and expects that the environmental problems become better so that the earth can be sustainable.


“Margaret Atwood – On Fiction, the Future and the Environment”, Dec 21. 2012, TheNexusInstitute, The Nexus Institute.

“Margaret Atwood interview: ‘Go three days without water and you don’t have any human rights. Why? Because you’re dead’”, Robert McCrum, Nov 28. 2010, The Guardian.

“Margaret Atwood Interview”, Matthew Rothschild. Dec 2, 2010. The Progressive.


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